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From Boardroom to Classroom: Execs-turned-educators bring practical knowledge to students

BY Sunday, May 13, 2018 07:00pm

A handful of West Michigan executives find that practical business experience can carry over from the boardroom to the classroom.

The circumstances by which some executives progress from success in industry to careers teaching business varies greatly. Some express a desire to give back and pass along the skills they learned in business to the next generation, while others enjoy the less chaotic lifestyle in academia compared to the sometimes rigid scheduling associated with work life in the C-suite.

Former executives turned educators acknowledged that the shift to academia isn’t for everyone, but people with the desire to do so can reap a multitude of benefits. For those execs who do make the jump into the classroom, it’s important to look ahead, rather than simply apply what they’ve done to achieve success, according to sources contacted for this report.

“We should be thinking about the future generation of business folks as opposed to the past,” said Fred Keller, the founder and chairman of Cascade Engineering Inc., a Grand Rapids-based manufacturer.

Since the late 1990s, Keller has taught graduate-level courses focused on sustainable business practices at Grand Valley State University, the University of Michigan and Cornell University in upstate New York.

“If you’re thinking you’re going to walk into a class and tell them how it was done, I think that would be not very fulfilling and not very helpful to the students because they really have to deal with the business of the future,” Keller said. “We need to be willing to do our research to know what the current thinking is, and then even project that going forward using our experiences to color why that might be wise or not.”


Academic administrators say they welcome more experienced business people either making a full-fledged transition to academia or working part-time as adjunct professors.

GVSU’s Seidman College of Business in Grand Rapids makes use of traditional Ph.D.-level faculty as well as a crop of “faculty practitioners,” according to Diana Lawson, the dean of the business school.

Lawson noted that GVSU students get a better experience when professors have deep roots in research and academia as well as practical business experience.

By having that mix of faculty — some with theoretical and conceptual knowledge and others with practical working knowledge — GVSU students get a better understanding of the business field and come out more prepared to market themselves to potential employers, Lawson said.

“The faculty practitioners help to bridge the theory with practice, with how the world works. And it works really, really well,” she said. “Our students get a much more holistic or broad-based education as a result. And what our employers tell us, the students are ready to work the day they come in because they understand the theories, practice and how it actually works in the workplace.”


Most execs who’ve transitioned to academia agree there’s no straight line to go from working in business to teaching in higher education.

For Bill Foley and Gayle DeBruyn, successful careers in the furniture and design industries slowly led to full-time teaching opportunities at Aquinas College and Kendall College of Art and Design, respectively.

Foley, who worked for Herman Miller Inc. and Charter House Innovations LLC, noted that throughout his career, he consistently volunteered to develop and train other employees, which translated to his interest in teaching.

“I was always in a mode where any opportunity I had to try and take on helping to develop people in the organization, I did,” Foley said. “Whenever someone asked for a volunteer to train … I would always raise my hand. It was something I had a knack for and a desire to do.”

After serving as an adjunct faculty member at Aquinas for a number of years, Foley decided to retire from Charter House last year and take up teaching full time.

Likewise, DeBruyn, who serves as an associate professor at Kendall College and as its Chief Sustainability Officer, worked with Haworth Inc. and her own design studio while earning her master’s degree, which allowed her to teach.

To DeBruyn, the experience and built-in networks of executives make for key reasons why universities should be seeking to get more people from business into their classrooms.

“What I learned in the world of corporate business is the strength of a relationship and how important it is to establish strong networks and maintain those networks,” she said. “That’s where the scholarships often (come from) in design. There’s a lot that goes on in manufacturing, business and trends that we have to stay current with. Having really good, strong, established networks that we began with when we were in business, it’s super important.”


The ability to gain a new sense of freedom in academia — outside the daily grind of the business world — has also proven to be attractive for people who have transitioned from executive-level roles into higher education.

When contacted by MiBiz, Foley was working from home in the morning and waiting for his grandchildren to arrive for the afternoon — a far cry from his days in the private sector.

“The shift was a real liberating shift,” Foley said of transitioning from the corporate world to academic work. “I have dedicated time where I have to be in the classroom and I have dedicated office hours, not 40 (hours) though. What I find is that my schedule becomes much more enjoyable. My lifestyle is absolutely this wonderful lifestyle with a blend of work and home life and family life and fun and recreation. I can almost set my own schedule.”

Those are sentiments echoed by GVSU’s Lawson.

“If you think about business and you think about executives in business, it’s not even 9-5, it’s 7-7,” Lawson said. “It’s very structured and you have to be in the office to do your work. I’m an administrator now, but I was a faculty member for a long time and there’s no better lifestyle.”

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